Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Simplicity of Breath

I refrained from talking about breathing for a while because there are so many issues connected to it and so many emotions around the issue. I had very natural breathing when I started to sing and consequently no one talked about it to me. So as always, my consciousness needed a HOW. Over years of study and research it came down to basics.

Like everything in singing, there are many ways to look at breath function. 1) The periodic propagation of air is what we hear as pitch (I.e. in singing, breath is released by little puffs hundreds of times every second. This rapid machine-gun-like release is pitch). 2) The uninterrupted pressure of air underneath the vocal folds that makes for continuous sound.

The mechanism is simple. The lungs serve as a full bag of air that is squeezed by the rise of the diaphragm and the contraction of the many abdominal muscles that reduce the volume of the ribcage further squeezing air toward the vocal folds (hopefully). If the lungs are not completely filled, when the diaphragm and abs compress the air, instead of providing steady pressure underneath the folds, the pressure first fills the empty part of the lungs. Without adequate pressure to create the desired tone, the folds will automatically squeeze together to increase pressure. This is called pressed voice.

In a healthy voice. The vocal folds close fully over lungs and trachea full of air. This provides the means for pressure on one side. The diaphragm and abs work to pressurize from below. The abs and diaphragm work automatically.

Therefore in terms of breath support, the singer's responsibility consists of 1) taking a full breath to fill the lungs to capacity and maintain the state of expansion 2) produce a balanced onset whereby the folds gently but fully close for every vibratory cycle hundreds of times per second. The diaphragm and abs are activated automatically by the brain to provide the necessary pressure depending on the desired sound. These automatic actions provide sensory feedback in the pelvis via the Rectus Abdominus muscle in around the abdomen through the many abdominal muscles. These sensations are automatic if the singer accomplishes 1 and 2. If the singer feels a need to actively control the abs , it is a sign that 1 and/or 2 has/have not been accomplished. It is crucial that the singer takes charge of what s/he is responsible for and not what should be automatic.

© 12/14/2008


Martin Berggren said...

As far as I know, the diaphragm is an inhalation muscle and cannot push air out. Right?


Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Hello Martin,

True about the diapragm, however its relaxation is part of the exhalation process. Its relaxation requires nerve impulses as well. The innervation of the diaphragm is extremely complex. It is the most innervated muscle in the body.

The main principle has to do with the elasticity of both the lung tissue and the diaphragm itself (attached to the bottom of the lungs). During inhalation, the contraction of the the diaphragm causes not only a displacement of the diaphragm from its balanced state but also stretches the lungs away from neutral. Even without the muscles of exhalation there would be a natural elastic force that would want to return the lungs and diaphragm back to neutral. This would certainly be the case for the first part of exhalation (the elastic part).

Beyond the neutral point the abs as well as internal intercostals would have to do a considerable amount of work to reduce the volume of the ribcage, increasing the lung pressure and requiring equilibrium between the air pressure on both sides of the glottis.

Frescamari said...

You wrote here: "If the lungs are not completely filled, when the diaphragm and abs compress the air, instead of providing steady pressure underneath the folds, the pressure first fills the empty part of the lungs."

But what confuses me, is that once the steady pressure is applied, then the lungs are steadily losing air, so when one reaches the end of the phrase, there should now once again be an "empty part of the lungs."

How can pressed phonation be avoided at the end of the phrase, when the lungs are not full like they are at the beginning?

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

The importance of filling up in the beginning is to guarantee equalized pressure throughout the lung cavity. As the rise of the diaphragm and the contraction of the abs reduce the lung space, air pressure is maintained throughout the reduced space even as the air is used. It is like squeezing toothpaste out of the tube by rolling the bottom. The reduced space is always full of toothpaste. Once the space has been reduced as much as possible (i.e. diaphragm reaches max height and abs max contraction)the abs must be released and the diaphragm must contract to its low (convex) shape and the external intercostals expand the ribcage. The space will be back to maximum and the lungs will fill up again automatically because the pressure outside of the lungs is greater than that of the empty open lungs.
Once filled, the process begins again.

I hope that is clear.

zura iashvili said...

Mechanism sounds simple enough but for reasons unknown still very hard to apply. During whole this process, i mean taking full breath, maintaining position and phonating with ribcage still open, chords closed and abs contracting, do you feel exhaustion of any particular muscle group? or does feeling change somehow from low note to high note, or everything remains same? so basically, what part do you really control, just maintaining expansion and phonation with right sound in mind? thank you very much, i am trying hard to figure this out completely.

Kashu-Do said...

Dear Zura, Thank you for your questions and I'm sorry it has taken a while to respond. I have been very busy lately. As you noticed, this post is only about breathing. The tone (larynx) must be developed and coordinated with the breath and the resonance mechanism (vocal tract) must also be trained to assume a proper posture. The tone should feel "structurally" the same throughout. There are little changes happening from note to note, but to the singer is should feel like there is relatively no change. When big changes are felt, too much is changing. The mode of phonation should feel consistent. Even though the balance of the laryngeal muscles change with pitch, "the feeling of balance feels the same from one note to the other." The changes that are obvious are vowel (resonance) changes. From one note to the next the vowel feels like it changes a little. From the low range to the high, you as a man will feel that the voice goes from being dominated by low resonance sensations to being dominated by high resonance sensations. However both high and low resonance is present throughout the voice. I hope this helps.